WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains descriptions of deceased Indigenous persons.

An unnerving echo cracks the silence as the key turns the tumblers inside the heavy lock – a brassy, rasping click, click – before the door opens on to a pitch-black temporary ossuary for thousands of lost and restless dead.

The overhead fluorescents flicker on in this small space, perhaps no bigger than a cramped classroom, that is enclosed at the centre of a warehouse on Adelaide’s undulating industrial outskirts. White light illuminates seven bays of utilitarian, open wooden storage frames, each with five shelves. Every shelf is laden with boxes that are separated by slim shadows. Each box contains skeletal remains of people of all ages, mostly Indigenous Australians.

This halfway house for bones and spirits feels too small for all it harbours. For stored here in thousands of cardboard containers are the full or partial skeletal remains of 4,600 individuals and the millions of human experiences attached to them.

South Australian Museum.



South Australian Museum. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

You wander past the shelves and glance at the boxes. The contents of a few are denoted in a neat calligraphic hand – “Femur”, “Jaw”. Some bear a word or two scrawled in biro – “Skull”, “Ground Bone – Human Rib”, “child”, “cranium”, “mandibles”. Others are marked with only a place name – “Minlaton”, “Cape Elisabeth”, “Salt Creek” – or the name of a people such as the Kaurna, custodians of the country that became Adelaide and who feature disproportionately on the shelves.

Although you’ve been in this room before, you could never become accustomed to, let alone decrypt or articulate, its atmospherics. It is funereal and it is medical, and it is at once profoundly spiritual and culturally heretical. You feel the presence of many, many others around you in here and you want to know who these people are who were thieved of identity when they were rendered collectibles. This place is freighted with an emotional and physical – a historical national and international – enormity, an onerous moral weight, that almost defies language and comprehension.

There is little except your foreknowledge and a few blunt words on cardboard to remind you that these are all actually boxes of humans.

You look up. That’s when you see the visages of human faces peering through bubble wrap. They are copies of Indigenous peoples’ heads, some of them death masks, plaster moulds that served the voodoo sciences of phrenology and eugenics, and its guiding light of Darwinism. These heads peering through the plastic, looking down upon you from the top shelves close to the ceiling, give distinct if ghostly human shape to all that lies in the myriad cardboard coffins.

Understanding the experiences of some of the Aboriginal people whose remains are in these boxes – the injustices and cruelties inflicted upon them in life and death – is a dreadful and deeply distressing process, especially for Indigenous people.

As David Rathman, chair of the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee, says, “The injustice of what happened – the injustice that this collection of old people tells the story of – is profoundly disturbing.”

Shying away from these horrors – not least at a time of renewed urgency to advance and protect the rights of Australian Indigenous people through the Black Lives Matter movement, and consistent with the call from Uluru for a national historical truth telling – is not, however, the answer. Exposure to the light of harsh scrutiny is the antidote to historical silence and secreted truths.

So sadness competes with a fierce anger inside you. The bones of 4600 people in cardboard boxes, and all in one place – Adelaide, which has long considered itself the most civilised of Australian cities because it largely escaped the foundational convict stain. Adelaide, with all its secrets. Where to begin?

The hands of Major Sumner (mogi).



The hands of Major Sumner (mogi). Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

From the 1860s and well into the 20th century, Adelaide’s tight government, medical, bureaucratic, academic and museological elite customarily stole and swapped the remains of thousands of mostly Indigenous individuals. Through a range of personal relationships between establishment individuals connected to the University of Adelaide medical school, the South Australian Museum, the morgue, the asylum, the Aborigines Protection Board and Adelaide Hospital, thousands of bodies were stolen, collected and traded locally, nationally and internationally.

They included skeletons stolen in their hundreds from ancient burial grounds. Others were collected upon request by frontier workers and police who either came across the dead or killed the living so as to make them collectable. It’s no coincidence some of the skulls in the collection bear bullet holes.

Others who died on the streets, in institutions like the insane asylum, the hospital and hospices for the elderly, were “anatomised” (a euphemism for defleshed), and their intact heads, skulls and skeletons turned into collection items.

Ngarrindjeri man Major “Moogy” Sumner works closely with the museum on returning the remains to country.

“The 4,600 odd people who are here don’t even measure up to the many, many more who remain overseas,” says Sumner.

“I think it will be our grandchildren or great grandchildren who will bring the last of them home. And yet they took so many thousands of them over there in just a few years in their sailing ships. It seems funny – they went over in the ships and they’re coming back home in the 747. You know something? I reckon if you dug up the old [Adelaide] cemeteries where the black people were buried and opened up the coffins you wouldn’t find one body in there. Not one.”

Major Sumner (mogi) at the South Australian Museum.



Major Sumner (mogi) at the South Australian Museum. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

What attitudes, what prevailing racial philosophy, could have allowed this to happen? And who were the men – for they were all men – responsible?

***

This may shock South Australians who’ve long prided themselves that their colony – and its capital, Adelaide – was established amid some neat transferral of British civility, rendering it absent of the convict stain, the uncivil barbarity, of other Australian colonies. But the truth is that many families who invested vast wealth in the mercantile, financial and cultural establishment of Adelaide did so with the proceeds of slavery. Among many others, they include the families of George Fife Angas, Isaac Currie, John Samuel August and Jacob Montefiore, all of whom profited from family ownership of dark-skinned people and from the (millions of dollars-worth, in today’s currency, of) compensation they received from the British government after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

However, it’s the pioneering Stirling family that matters most here. Edward Stirling – member of the South Australian parliament and father of the SA constitution, pastoralist and director of the colony’s bank – arrived about 1839 with the silver spoon of £1,000 bequeathed to him by his father, Archibald, a Jamaican slaveholder. His money, courtesy of investment in new colonial opportunities, chiefly pastoralism, multiplied.

Director of the South Australian Museum 1884-1912 Edward Charles Stirling



Director of the South Australian Museum 1884-1912 Edward Charles Stirling Photograph: South Australia Museum

His son Edward Charles Stirling, on the back of the family’s expanding pastoral riches, followed him into the colonial parliament. But it was as an Adelaide Hospital surgeon, professor of physiology at Adelaide University and director of the South Australian Museum for 28 years until 1912, that he helped amass the museum’s collection of dead Aboriginal people.

He was an anthropologist and ethnologist with an intense fascination for Aboriginal people. He collected remains personally on numerous field trips and commissioned many others to do so. Among those who supplied the SAM with remains (many of which were traded with overseas institutions for other collectibles) was sub-inspector Paul Foelsche of the SA Mounted Police.

According to outback justice historian Tony Roberts, “the man who masterminded more massacres in [what became] the [Northern] Territory [after separating from South Australia in 1911] than anyone else was Inspector Foelsche. A former soldier, he was cunning, devious and merciless with Aboriginals … Some considered him an expert on Aboriginals, not knowing that the skulls he studied were not merely collected by him.”

We will get to the story of one of the men Foelsche collected – Manialucum – whose skull and jawbone ended up in one of the cardboard boxes in this Adelaide room of the dead. But first back to EC Stirling who – together with Dr William Lennox Cleland, the superintendent at Parkside Lunatic Asylum (and lecturer in insanity at Adelaide University medical school), Dr William Ramsey Smith, the South Australia anatomy inspector (or coroner) and Archibald Watson, professor of anatomy at the university – was responsible for sending dozens of sets of Aboriginal remains to overseas collecting and teaching institutions, including Edinburgh University.

As a legislator, Stirling wrote South Australia’s 1884 Anatomy Act. It stipulated that anyone without family who died in a public institution and who did not express reservation about being anatomised, could be transferred post-mortem to the university medical school for dissection. This meant an inordinate number of vagrants, many Aboriginal, and Indigenous people visiting from the regions, who died in Adelaide, had their bodies snatched and defleshed.

Between November 1899 and August 1903 alone Cleland authorised the removal of 71 bodies from the asylum morgue to the university’s medical school. After students dissected the bodies, the skulls, soft tissue and preserved heads of some were exported to overseas medical schools and institutions. Others were kept in the medical school’s museum. Some were given to the state museum. Most of those that were sent overseas have been returned to Australia where, if they have not been returned to country, are now stored in the SAM’s room of the dead.

Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi) and Anna Russo, the Aboriginal heritage manager.



Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi) and Anna Russo, the Aboriginal heritage manager. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

Anna Russo, the museum’s Aboriginal heritage and repatriation manager, explains while gesturing to several square shelf metres of boxes: “These here are all from the anatomy school – collected probably before 1936 and were put together as part of the medical school museum. They’re mainly skulls, they’re mainly from burial sites … These are things that people have donated to the anatomy school … They’ve come out of graves. They’ve still got the dirt [on them]. But there are others here too … because they had access to the corpses that were coming from the hospitals, the destitute asylum, the mental asylum, and the old age home. When those people died the Anatomy Act allowed those bodies to come through the university if they had no family. If they were from the regions, I don’t think they really bothered checking that much. They were doing facial casting too – there are death masks and there are skulls. So that’s all just the anatomy school.”

If you had no family, were in the asylum, the hospital or a hospice, you effectively had to opt out if you didn’t want to be dissected and face the further prospect of your remains being collected, gifted or traded. For Aboriginal people, many of whom spoke no English or only as a secondary language, this was impossible.

Russo has been piecing together the evidence of how this worked in practice. It is disturbing, confronting material to work through.

She cites the experience of Aboriginal man Harry Cox, who died on 8 January 1907 at the asylum, his body delivered to the anatomy school the next morning.

In a note on the anatomy school file, Cleland wrote: “The said Harry Cox did not to the best of my knowledge, information or belief express his desire either in writing any time during his life or verbally during his illness … that his body after death might not undergo an anatomical examination.”

Dr. William Lennox Cleland, the head of the Lunacy Department.



Dr. William Lennox Cleland, the head of the Lunacy Department. Photograph: The Express and Telegraph

The man’s body was supposed to be buried on 30 May 1907. But it wasn’t; his remains ended up in a German institution until 2013, when they were repatriated to the museum in Adelaide (which keeps all South Australian remains ahead of return to country) as part of a national repatriation protocol.

After a long trial in 1893 during which it was evident he spoke no English and could not understand proceedings or give evidence, another Aboriginal man charged with murder was admitted to the asylum at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. He died there a decade later. Cressida Fforde recounts in her book, Collecting the Dead, how, on the day the man died, Cleland requested pro-forma permission from the colonial chief secretary for the body to be anatomised on the grounds that his “skeleton is of great scientific value and ought not to be lost. He comes from the McDonnell Ranges and is a Governor’s pleasure man having committed murder.”

The dead man, Cleland again wrote, did not “to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, express his desire either in writing or at any time during his life, or verbally … that his body after death might not undergo anatomical examination”.

Cleland received permission five days later. But the body had already been delivered to Watson at the anatomy school after the coroner, William Ramsay Smith, determined there was no need for an autopsy and that the dead man could, instead, be immediately buried. Cleland had intended the skeleton for the museum, given what he determined was its rarity. But instead Ramsay Smith sent it to DJ Cunningham, his anatomy teacher at his alma mater, Edinburgh University, to which Ramsay Smith despatched over decades dozens of full Aboriginal skeletons, skulls and preserved heads – most of which have since been returned to Adelaide.

It is a compelling – though not incidental – digression to learn that Cleland’s son JB Cleland (esteemed professor of pathology at Adelaide University, microbiologist, naturalist and eugenicist who grew up at Parkside and later became deputy chair of the state Aborigines Protection Board) was a leading assimilationist of his era, and a collector of remains who obsessively tested the blood of Indigenous and mixed-race Aboriginal people. He wrote that “we could absorb [Indigenous people] by marriage without fear of introducing a low type of mentality”.

JB Cleland once wrote: “I am essentially a naturalist & like Darwin also a collector.”

The Cleland name is honoured by the Cleland Wildlife Park and, ironically for a man who advocated Indigenous children be removed from their parents, an Adelaide kindergarten.

Cleland Wildlife Park South Australia.



Cleland Wildlife Park South Australia. Photograph: David Moore/South Australia/Alamy Stock Photo

The University of Adelaide medical school opened in 1885. By 1887 the word was rife among Aboriginal people in colonial care what stood to become of them after death. In January 1887 Ted Hamilton, the South Australian protector of Aborigines (whose job it was to supposedly protect Indigenous people from cruelty, oppression and injustice) recorded the death of Indigenous man Dan Angie. Terrified that he would be cut up if he died, Angie jumped from a window at the hospital where he was a patient, badly injuring himself in the eight-metre fall. He was returned to the hospital after police found him the next day sleeping near the river. He died a few days later after his transferral to the asylum.

Hamilton wrote: “When I saw him at the Hospital, he said something about some persons having told him of the stories that the Doctors at the Hospital would cut his body to pieces … which appears to have frightened him.”

The museum’s collection rapidly grew. It regularly advertised for donations of Aboriginal remains, while Stirling himself canvassed from those he thought might be able to help.

Russo refers to correspondence from Stirling to the family of a private collector who had recently died. The man’s daughter wrote back, referring to the skull of an Aboriginal woman her father had dug up.

“The female skull, my father got himself. The lubra was known to my mother and father. She used to help my mother with the rough work about the house. I’ve often heard my mother and father speak of Betty as a very supreme black,” reads the daughter’s response to Stirling.

Russo says: “That is just one of the many terrible stories we are dealing with here. To me this letter strongly illustrates the societal attitudes that pervaded in Adelaide at that time. That’s the way this town was.”

Ramsay Smith personally stole skulls from burial grounds on Hindmarsh Island. Many hundreds of full skeletons and skulls, meanwhile, were displaced from traditional cemeteries as the South Australian colony expanded and displaced the Kaurna. An estimated 3,000 of the 4,600 people whose remains are held by the museum were originally buried within 100km of Adelaide.

When Ramsay Smith died in 1937, more than a hundred human skulls, mostly those of Aboriginal people, were found in his home. Ramsay Smith’s activities had scandalised the pathology community in Adelaide.

Tommy Walker, a Ngarrindjeri man, was fondly known around the streets and parks of Adelaide in the late 19th century. So much so that upon his 1901 death, Adelaide’s stock exchange paid for his funeral. But little of Poltpalingada, as he was also known, made the grave; Ramsay Smith snatched his body and cut him up, leaving just a few portions of soft tissue in the coffin. Ramsay Smith then sent Poltpalingada’s skeleton to Edinburgh.

The attached image shows Aboriginal people who may have died, which may cause sadness and distress to their relatives. King Tommy Walker, full-blood Aboriginal.



King Tommy Walker, full-blood Aboriginal. Photograph: State Library of South Australia

Poltpalingada’s fate sparked a public inquiry in 1903. It revealed sordid details about the illicit trade in body parts that flourished in Ramsay Smith’s morgue. Aboriginal bodies were in particular demand. Parcels of human tissue were delivered to collectors. A morgue assistant recounted heads in kerosene tins in the yard outside the morgue.

The case shook and stirred civilised Adelaide. Ramsay Smith, exonerated by the public inquiry, resumed his duties and the body snatching continued, as evidenced by the case of Yawarrawarrka man, Bokalie, his body stolen upon death in 1905 after spending 11 years in the asylum. Ramsay Smith sent Bokalie’s preserved head to Cunningham at the Edinburgh medical school.

I recently found an article by Cunningham in a medical journal that is accompanied by photographs of Bokalie’s head. In the article Cunningham compares Bokalie’s ear to that of primates.

Old Medical School of the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh.



Old Medical School of the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

In 1911 the state dictated that human remains displaced by civil works (the vast majority were Aboriginal) would be stored at the museum. The collection grew even bigger.

At least six of the skulls in the collection have bullet holes. Only one of their stories is known – that of Manialucum, brought to the museum by the infamous frontier policeman, Paul Foelsche. In 1889 two men held Manialucum as he knelt while the white buffalo hunter Rodney Spencer twice shot him with a revolver – once in the back, once in the head. Spencer, originally sentenced to hang after his conviction for murder, was released after a decade in prison and following considerable community outcry at the severity of his sentence.

Manialucum had apparently stolen some rice from Spencer. It’s unclear how Foelsche came to have his head.

The museum’s head of humanities, John Carty, stands at the entrance of the room where all of the bodies are stored. He folds his arms across his chest, casts his eyes towards the floor. Like Anna Russo, he’s been in this room too many times.

“If you are not overwhelmed by this, there’s something wrong with you. You’ve switched off your empathy. You’ve checked out and you’re allowing yourself to switch into that modality that allowed these people to be collected and put in boxes, which is to think of them as things or specimens or resources for science other than somebody’s brother or sister or mother or dad,” he says.

Director of the South Australian Museum, John Carty talking with Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi).



Director of the South Australian Museum, John Carty talking with Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi). Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

“You never walk in here and don’t feel unsettled. I’ve really felt for Anna [Russo] actually – in the process of doing the [recent] audit [of all of the remains in the collection]. She’s often been down here by herself. We have to have check-ins at the end of the day to talk about what she’s finding and to talk about what it’s like to work in a place like this. Because it’s just overwhelming on a human scale.”

There was a time, Carty says, when Aboriginal people in Adelaide were terrified their bodies would be snatched.

“Every Aboriginal person in Adelaide had this view that once you died in a hospital or other institution … there was a very serious risk that doctors were going to take their bodies and cut them up after they died. And there was a good reason for that fear.”

Carty – who has shaken up the museum’s collection protocols and overhauled its outdated repatriation policy since taking the job a few years ago – contemplates the slavery connection to establishment Adelaide.

“It’s the same mentality as that which pervaded the medical fraternity here – that black people are a resource, you know, dead or alive – either a slave you can use for your financial benefit or a data set you can build your career on. This happened because scientists saw Aboriginal people as less than themselves, as a resource to study and as a diminishing resource so they have to bring that resource here for the betterment of white people’s knowledge,” he says.

“The thing is, all of this was happening not so long ago. It’s people’s grandfathers who were doing this to people’s grandfathers. That’s why it’s going to be hard for people to reconcile that people in great positions of power in the establishment … who intersected with the history of this museum, were responsible for this terrible thing.”

South Australian Museum.



South Australian Museum. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

The first major reform Carty introduced to the museum after his arrival in 2016 was an overhaul of its policies on repatriation, and collecting and displaying human remains.

The museum had an antiquated decades-old policy on repatriation (basically one that can easily be interpreted as saying that it was all too hard) and arbitrary protocols on the display of remains.

The chair of the museum’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee, David Rathman, says: “When you look at these remains, one of the questions I pose when I run workshops is, ‘Who are the beneficiaries of colonisation?’ With these remains, who were the beneficiaries of the scientific experimentation? You’ll see no monuments to tribal leaders in this museum but you’ll see plenty of monuments along North Terrace out there [the main monumental/cultural showcase of Adelaide with its statuary tributes to leading colonial figures] to all the so-called leaders of the community.”

“So, 1987 was the last time this museum looked at its policy on human remains and the museum is a place of relics. That policy is a legacy of that. Our primary concern now is to make sure that they [the remains] get back where they have come from. The vast majority come from within 100km of Adelaide. And we hold about half of the national collections of [ancestral] human remains here. So, it is the responsibility of the museum to return these remains to country where that is possible.”

Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi) the South Australian Museum.



Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi) the South Australian Museum. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

But that could take another generation. There are enormous practical difficulties, often involving by-laws on the burial of human remains, when it comes to interring so many bodies.

Carty says: “You can also imagine the trauma of returning hundreds of bodies to certain communities. There are enormous hurdles – practical, emotional and spiritual. But we have a responsibility to do this – everyone in Adelaide has a responsibility to help right this wrong.”

Ideally all of the remains would be returned to country. But a number of impediments – a lack of funding, the impossibility of matching some remains to a specific part of the country and people – stand in the way.

The state, however, and the major institutions that were responsible for amassing the huge Indigenous remains collection in the first place – which is to say the government, the museum and the university – are now collectively taking responsibility for righting this egregious historical wrong. The South Australian premier, Steven Marshall – also the minister for Aboriginal affairs – has been supportive of the museum’s new push to return the remains to country and his increased funding in accordance with his engagement on the painful repatriation issue.

The state government is working through potential changes to its Burial and Cremation Act to make it easier for Aboriginal people to rebury ancestors where and when they need to.

Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi), Director of the South Australian Museum, John Carty, and Anna Russo, the Aboriginal heritage manager at the South Australian Museum.



Ngarrindjeri man Major Sumner (mogi), Director of the South Australian Museum, John Carty, and Anna Russo, the Aboriginal heritage manager at the South Australian Museum. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/The Guardian

Meanwhile, the University of Adelaide acknowledges its own immense responsibility and the culpability of its former eminent medical scientists, and has accordingly funded a repatriation position at the museum for a Kaurna person to help return remains to country about Adelaide.

Ultimately, many will never be returned to country. Perhaps the closest they will come is repatriation to a state of provenance. Keeping places will need to be established in each state and territory.

Meanwhile, there are moves to bury or rebury large numbers of remains (where provenanced) of some Indigenous people in the museum collection on public land – some of which is held by cemetery trusts.

The South Australian Museum director, Brian Oldman, says the actions of the museum to repatriate the old people demands honesty and openness.

“The South Australian Museum is fully committed to reconciliation and part of this process is to address the abhorrent practice of removing ancestors from country,” he says. “Museums, including the one I currently direct, can only start to atone for those actions and address the pain of Aboriginal people if museums fully acknowledge the painful truths found in their history. What we must do is work with Aboriginal communities to start to heal the wounds of the past.”

Anna Russo turns the key in that heavy lock and switches off the fluorescent lights. Darkness envelops the 4,600 dead people and their unsettled spirits. For now they remain trapped in all of these neatly stacked cardboard boxes in this room of the dead on the outskirts of genteel Adelaide.



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